WCMA hosts Mayan masterpieces

In the tiny McNicol Gallery on the first floor of the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) is an exhibit that rewards close investigation: Associate Professor of Anthropology Antonia Foias’s Teaching With Art: The Art and Archaeology of Maya Civilization opened Saturday and is open through Feb. 2, 2012. The display is meant to supplement her fall courses  “Pyramids, Bones, and Sherds: What is Archaeology?” and “The Art and Archaeology of Maya Civilization: A Marriage Made in Xibalba.”

A uniquely sophisticated Mesoamerican people famous for their writing system, mathematics, astronomy and calenders, the Mayans flourished in what is today southern Mexico from about 200 to 1000 A.D. Foias, an authority on the civilization’s ceramics, assembled for the show eight well-preserved pieces of WCMA’s permanent collection to exemplify four categories of Mayan objects. Mostly clayware dated  roughly between  600 and 900 A.D., or the  Late Classic period of Mayan history, these art pieces strike the viewer with their abstract, highly stylized decoration.

Despite this visual interest, these pieces at first seem unnervingly silent. A Late Classic limestone corbel, the single architectural ornament and largest item on display, rests unprotected on a pedestal opposite the gallery entrance, drawing the visitor into the deep-red exhibit space. But once the viewer admires the geometric correspondences among the square face, features, and helmet of a ruler-god carved into the beam’s head, the minimal text and even sparser images on the walls may not inspire further reflection. It is only when the viewer takes a cue from the very shape of the beam and imagines the corbel adorning a building, namely a temple, that he or she glimpses the magnificence of Mayan architecture.

Though the other glass-cased objects lining the remaining wall of the room  require a little research to spring to life, they paint more vivid pictures of Mayan culture. For instance, a Late Classic, mold-made terracotta whistle, one of two musical instruments on display, depicts a cross-legged man who stares rigidly forward, wears a headdress larger than his head and a mask reminiscent of the corbel and holds a cloth in his left hand. The mask and cloth suggest the whistle’s use in an auto-bloodletting ceremony designed to help guarantee the divine replenishment of the earth.

A contemporary terracotta chalice, one of three incense burners, has vertical bands of spikes possibly mimicking the hallucinogenic datura plant, which the Maya might have employed alongside the burner in a birth-related ritual. Also from the Late Classic era is an elegant but partially abraded ceramic pot, once used for offerings and that originally rested in a noble’s tomb. A motif of seated figures painted onto the vessel in warm tones appears to illustrate a scene from an oral epic in which  young twin heroes assume different animal identities to confuse the evil night gods.

The exhibit leaves visitors with a somewhat fragmented final impression of the Maya, and perhaps intentionally so. The dearth of contextualizing information and the display’s general simplicity could be meant to advertise the unnaturalness of the museum setting for objects such as those in Teaching With Art, objects that had at least as much functional worth as they did aesthetic value to their creators. Any conclusion reached by means of such an artificial gathering of relics must be accepted with caution. Appropriately for Foias’s classes, Teaching With Art would then also highlight a fundamental challenge of the archeological reconstruction of past societies from a few material remains.

iva nikolau/staff photographer The Mayan artifacts featured in Teaching with Art are valued for their aesthetic and educational value.